Theater Review: Bedlam’s “Sense & Sensibility” — Theatrical Nirvana

All of the pieces – and some of them are quite odd and incongruent – come together in Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility to create a marvelous vision of becoming one.

Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility, written by Kate Hamill. Adapted from the novel by Jane Austen. Directed by Eric Tucker. Choreography by Alexandra Beller. Scenic design by John McDermott. Costume design by Angela Huff. Lighting design by Les Dickert. Sound design by Alex Neuman. Presented by American Repertory Theater the Loeb Drama Center, Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA, through January 14, 2018.

Photo: Ashley Garrett

Nigel Gore, Maggie Adams McDowell, and Ryan Quinn in Bedlam’s “Sense & Sensibility.” Photo: Ashley Garrett

By David Greenham

At one point in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, another classic epic of the loves and challenges of women in the nineteenth century,  Princess Natalie declares “If you look for perfection, you will never be satisfied.”

Bedlam’s brilliant and refreshing stage adaptation of Sense and Sensibility goes after perfection on two levels. First, the production draws on Jane Austen’s narrative about the young Dashwood women, Elinor and Marianne, along with their mother and younger sister, Margaret. Their quest for perfection in love drives the storyline. This archetypal search is also what energizes Kate Hamill’s smart and confident stage adaptation.

The second level of the quest for perfection is in Eric Tucker’s wonderfully conceived and flawlessly executed concept. Tucker and Bedlam’s staging, with the support of a cracker-jack design team and flawless cast and crew is about as close as you are likely to get to theatrical nirvana on a Boston stage. To suggest that this production of Sense & Sensibility is damn near perfect will probably make a reader cringe a little. I understand. We are surrounded by critical hype, and far too many reviewers are anxious to trot out superlatives.

But this time around the adjectives are merited. Veteran director Peter Brook explains what Bedlam pulls off better than I can: “The purpose of theatre is… making an event in which a group of fragments are suddenly brought together… in a community which, by the natural laws that make every community, gradually breaks up… At certain moments this fragmented world comes together and for a certain time it can rediscover the marvel of organic life. The marvel of being one.” And that is what makes this production so wonderful: all of the pieces – and some of them are quite odd and incongruent pieces – come together to create a marvelous vision of becoming one.

Sense & Sensibility is a thousand moving pieces, a whirly-gig of rolling chairs and tables that supports a confident and self-assured cast of actors who root themselves tightly to their characters and the storyline. Director Tucker and choreographer Alexandra Beller are, to some extent, expert traffic cops, making sure that all the moving parts avoid crashing into each other. Or if they do crash into each other, they make sure it happens on purpose and generates laughs.

In the center ring of this delicious circus is Maggie Adams McDowell’s Elinor, the “Sense” of the title. Stoic, deliberate, and always under control, the character weaves her way round and about the ups and downs of the tests of romance. Thanks to Adams McDowell’s beautiful performance, Elinor’s emotional highs and lows are exquisitely vivid. In contrast with the rationality of Elinor, there’s the sensibility of Jessica Frey’s heart-on-her sleeve Marianne, whose laughter, joys, hopes, heartbreak, and tears flow with compelling abandon. Lisa Birnbaum is caring and helpless as their mother, Mrs. Dashwood. But Birnbaum uses her considerable skills as a comedienne to create a hilariously irritating Anne Steele and a daffily deteriorated Mrs. Ferrars.

The staging’s best scenes are those that take place between Elinor and Katie Hartke’s Lucy Steele, the former’s arch nemesis. The actors sit on a pair of rolling chairs, delivering their lines as they are pushed around the stage. Despite the absurdity, the performers never flinch at ratcheting up the competitive tension. It might be possible, given all the fuss kicked up by the two older sisters, to miss Margaret, the youngest Dashwood. But not with Violeta Picayo in the role. The actor is charming, silly, and adds a zesty dollop of cynicism to the Dashwood brouhaha.

The men in Sense & Sensibility are both critical yet somehow unimportant. Or maybe the word is interchangeable; as they parade by they provide plenty of panache in a series of supporting roles. Benjamin Russell plays both the bad guys: the boorish older brother John Dashwood and the deceiving but remorseful John Willoughby. James Patrick Nelson brings decency and sorrow to his turn as a broken and desperate Colonel Brandon. He brings charged comic chops to his characterizations of Thomas and Lady Middleton.

Outfitted with a ridiculous wig and rubber face, Ryan Quinn is perfectly and miraculously pleased with himself as Sir John Middleton. And Nigel Gore is pleasurably droll as the detached Mrs. Jennings.

If there’s a highlight among the highlights, it’s Jamie Smithson, who plays the central male love interest, Edward Ferrars, as well as his drunken brother, Robert Ferrars. Because Smithson’s Edward is so grounded and honest, his irreverent Robert can bubble over the top with audience-pleasing abandon.

The eleventh actor is the Bedlam ensemble itself. Transitions are seamless and include whispers, presumably of text from Austen’s novel, and it serves as an effective way to capture the gossipy nature of life under the Austen big top (at least in this telling).

The production’s surprises don’t only come from the actors and directors (and even the stage hands, who make an appearance or two in the second act). John McDermott’s sets, Angela Huff’s costumes, Les Dickert’s lighting, and Alex Neuman’s sound are also unfailingly amusing.

Escapist, well yes. Sense & Sensibility isn’t protesting our current political turmoil, or reckoning with global warming. But the production is doing something just as important. Bedlam’s show reminds us that we should strive to think out of the box, and to re-imagine what we know, or what we think we know. Sometimes the result might be a fiasco, or at the very least a disappointment. But every once in a while, all the pieces will come together in a harmonious and inspired way, and the result might just be…perfection.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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